There is a wide diversity of unexplored metabolism encoded in the genomes of microorganisms that have an important environmental role. Genome-scale metabolic modelling enables the individual reactions that are encoded in annotated genomes to be organized into a coherent whole, which can then be used to predict metabolic fluxes that will optimize cell function under a range of conditions. In this Review, we summarize a series of studies in which genome-scale metabolic modelling of Geobacter spp. has resulted in an in-depth understanding of their central metabolism and ecology. A similar iterative modelling and experimental approach could accelerate elucidation of the physiology and ecology of other microorganisms inhabiting a diversity of environments, and could guide optimization of the practical applications of these species.